Interview with Steve McCormack of SMc Audio
Starting with audio kits as a teenager, young Steve McCormack graduated to building kits for other people. Following a spell in the navy, he took a job selling audio gear on the retail side while pursuing studies in sound recording. His natural tendency to modify gear based both on his own developing knowledge of sound reproduction and comments from customers led to his founding a full-time modification business, and eventually to the launch of his own line of audio products. From TipToes component feet to digital front ends, Steve has earned a reputation for quality. Best known for his classic Mod Squad and McCormack lines of amplification (the latter now owned by Conrad Johnson), Steve now runs SMc Audio, his own design and upgrade company, which offers a karmic return of sorts to his original role. Here he talks to Patrick Dillon about his work, the nature of great sound, and the future of high-end audio from a manufacturer’s perspective.
PD: What makes a Steve McCormack product different?
SM: Not to belabor the obvious, but it’s my unique point of view and life experience that inform my product designs and set them apart from other high-end audio products. This is one of the interesting attractions of this hobby – each designer brings a somewhat different personality and “flavor” to the design process. In my case, I bring a lot of experience working with both music (as a recording and mastering engineer) and electronics (particularly solid-state). My designs reflect my desire to recreate lifelike dynamics and clarity in the home – a particularly vivid and energetic style.
PD: Your latest creation, the VRE-1 preamp, is something of a statement product — what should people know about it?
SM: The VRE-1 preamp encompasses everything I have learned about music and audio electronic design. It is an honest attempt to create a reference preamplifier that serves the music (in the form of the original recording) as truthfully as possible. This has been the most difficult project I have undertaken as a designer, and I have come to view this goal as among the most elusive in all of audio. Making a preamp that sounds “good” is a simple-enough task for most experienced designers, but making one that does not impose its own character and yet manages to connect the listener with the emotional message is incredibly hard. I believe I have succeeded with the VRE-1, and I am extremely proud of the result. I understand that this sort of performance is not to everyone’s taste (nothing in audio is) but it was an important goal for me.
PD: Why a preamp, when technology now allows audiophiles the opportunity to drive power amps directly with digital sources?
SM: On several occasions I have installed the VRE-1 in a system where the source piece had its own volume control that was capable of controlling the amplifier directly. In each case the system performance was clearly improved, which is obviously counter-intuitive. The VRE-1 is somehow improving or optimizing the interface between the source and amplifier, even in cases where the extremely expensive source was designed to do this job without compromise. So, please do experiment with this yourself – I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
PD: Through SMc Audio you offer upgrades on most of your previous designs and there seems to be a strong customer base for these — to what do you attribute your designs’ longevity?
SM: McCormack Audio products have always offered solid value and performance well beyond their price range. I designed these products to last, and they have… exceptionally well. Even many of my older CD players are still in daily use and well-loved by their owners. As you note, I have been in the business of upgrading my various amps and preamps – very much like a “speed shop” is for cars. For people who fundamentally like the overall design and performance in the first place, the SMc Audio upgrades offer more than a glimpse of state-of-the-art performance at a cost far below much of the competition.
PD: Is SMc Audio (as a company) your conscious decision to work differently now than before? If so, what is different? How has it being working out for you?
SM: SMc Audio grew out of my desire to try new ideas without as much specific regard for low cost as a primary goal. Cost is always on my mind, and I am not in the habit of making things more expensive just because I can. But the “fun stuff” sometimes comes with a considerable price tag attached, and I am always on the lookout for new parts and techniques that will improve performance. Sometimes they are expensive (as in the VRE-1’s Corian chassis) and sometimes they are just difficult to work with (like the Van den Hul carbon wire), but I consider these details very important to my overall goal. I am happy to say that the upgrade business has been fairly successful and has an excellent track record for making the equipment owners happy with the improvement. This gives me a lot of personal satisfaction. But I could not escape the desire to design new and better equipment, and that led to the VRE-1. Beyond that, I have been giving a lot of thought to new amplifiers, and have been making some interesting progress in that direction. I just have to sell a few more VRE-1s to help underwrite that process!
PD: With regard to amplification, what progress has been made over the last 20 years?
SM: I am sure you know well there are those who would argue that there has not really been any true progress in a long time. I do not agree, although I will have to say that progress is often hard to define. In some technical areas progress has been dramatic – the world of “digital” amplification (in all of its various forms) has grown tremendously. But for me, the key aspect of music reproduction continues to be the degree to which it can involve you emotionally, and this is something we simply have not been able to define technically, let alone quantify. This is an elusive quality, and very delicate in the design sense – difficult to achieve and all-too-easy to lose when changes are made. While modern amplifiers may have a distinct advantage over their forebears in terms of clarity, low-level resolution, lower distortion, transparency, etc., there is no guarantee that a new design will evoke the emotional involvement that is so much a part of music enjoyment. In this sense, at least, there may not be a large difference between modern amplifiers and older designs.
PD: What does the push to digital/computer audio convergence mean for amplifier designers?
SM: More business? (Sorry – I couldn’t resist.) Although this inevitable convergence may have implications for more fully integrated systems (as in amplified speakers with built-in DSP), I think the traditional audiophile hobbyist will continue to enjoy building their systems piece-by-piece. In this sense, the convergence itself may be seen as a separate phenomenon, and it won’t necessarily have a direct effect on amplifier development. On the other hand, the growth and inexpensive availability of sophisticated DSP (Digital Signal Processing) systems is a natural fit, whether based in the music server front-end or included in the amplifier / speaker system. Ironically, I would expect to see much of this growth in relatively low-cost systems from large companies, while smaller audiophile companies like mine will tend to stick to refining more traditional technologies.
PD: You mention your experience in solid-state electronics as foundational to your approach. Clearly there’s a large fan base still for tube designs but you’ve never gone this path (that I can trace!). Where do you stand on tubes in high end audio, and do you think that the sonic differences between these and solid-state are disappearing with new designs?
SM: Tubes are wonderful in their way and I have a great appreciation for the things they do well, but I have a number of issues with them in practical terms. Ironically, one of the things I find most bothersome is the same thing that endears them to so many hobbyists – their variable sonic character. Audiophiles who enjoy tube rolling see this as a strength, while I find it a drawback. I want to be able to define the performance of my designs quite specifically and I can’t do that with tubes. Then there are issues of high voltage, heat, longevity, reliability, etc. So the trick is to find ways of creating solid-state designs that embody the engaging musicality of tubes with the best attributes of solid-state. Not that this is easy to do – I have worked long and hard to achieve this in my designs. I have seen a degree of convergence in solid-state and tube sound over the years… not to say that they sound the same (or ever will) but rather that we have all been getting better at designing and building our gear. This has led to better clarity, transparency, bass definition, and dynamic expression on both sides. No downside – we all benefit.
PD: Given your position on tubes, can you see yourself moving into Class D?
SM: Class D (and all of its variants) offer some very attractive attributes – high efficiency, low heat output / smaller heatsinks, and compact size, to name a few. There is no question that there are several outstanding amplifiers based on this technology, and they clearly have their fans. Personally, I still find something distracting about them in long term listening, so I feel more comfortable with “traditional” linear designs. On the other hand, I am intrigued with switching power supplies and think that combining a good switching supply with a linear amplifier may have a lot to offer.
PD: What is the role of listening in the Steve McCormack design process?
SM: Listening plays a central role for me – it is a fundamental part of how I work. Measurements are important in ensuring the proper electrical behavior of a design and I consider them essential for getting the basics right. But much of what we hear involves relative subtlety that does not lend itself to analysis by measurement – we must still rely on our ears. The parts I employ are a lot like an artist’s palette, and it is up to me to blend these elements skillfully to achieve the result I want. This is the essence of how I work as a designer.
PD: Many customers now buy online, there are innumerable forums for folks to share experiences etc, and we are witnessing many new entrants to the market from overseas. What are your views on the contemporary audio retail business and where does SMc Audio fit in this world?
SM: This is a very difficult issue. I wish I could say that the high-end audio hobby is thriving and growing, but we know that is not the case. The reasons for this are complex (and debatable, like everything else in audio) but the bottom line is that high-end businesses tend to compete for a relatively static market. We are all fighting for our slice of the same pie, so to speak, and it is a strongly competitive market. It saddens me to see that so often the bottom line for customers is price, but this is the result of our free market. Brick-and-mortar retail stores must be able to demonstrate that they have something tangible and important to offer their clients beyond what buying over the Internet can provide. The best set themselves apart by offering access to equipment demos, unique insights, and experience that online newcomers cannot match. I see myself as a small independent designer who is trying to reach those music lovers and equipment aficionados that appreciate what I have created… and can’t live without it! I will continue to spread the word.
PD: You now market via Lotus Audio — which has pushed your prices up considerably. What brought this move about and is this an arrangement we can envisage for the long-haul with your future designs?
SM: SMc Audio has always worked directly with my customers to provide upgrade services, and I thought I might be able to offer my new products that way, as well. Unfortunately, after several years of trying the direct sales model, the level of business was not enough to sustain that option. Fortunately, I met Joe Cohen of The Lotus Group, who fell in love with my VRE-1 preamp (it works amazingly well with his Granada speakers). Joe agreed to represent my product line, beginning with the VRE-1 (now revised to the VRE-1B model). Joe has been working hard on my behalf, and I’m happy to say that it is going well. So now I am back to selling via a traditional distribution model, just the same as any other typical company. This works well for me because I can concentrate more on product development – my real love – and leave the marketing to Joe.
PD: You are an advocate (at least a gentle one) of decent power cords for your products. Given we’ll never explain to everyone’s satisfaction why cords should make a difference, what are your thoughts on how the power cord impacts your products?
SM: I believe that everything we can do to improve the quality of the power driving our equipment is well worth the effort, and for me that definitely includes the AC cords. I have heard a lot of theories about why they should or shouldn’t have an effect, but the simple truth is that I hear significant differences among them. They have become an important part of my equipment mix, so I encourage others to experiment with them. As you know, I do not include an AC cord with my VRE-1B reference preamp because I do consider it an important part of the final result and I want my customers to reach their own conclusion about which is best for them. If I could be certain that a particular cord would give the best results in every situation, I would either include it or make a specific recommendation, but that’s the weird problem with all cables – you just can’t predict how they will behave from one system to the next. I suggest that people work on the basics of their AC power system first. Spending a few hundred bucks with your local electrician to have a dedicated AC feed installed goes a long way. Use “hospital grade” outlets at least (easy to get and not very expensive) and if you want to get more esoteric, fine. A relatively small investment here really pays-off in improved sonics and reduced noise (what we often call “blacker background”).
After that, experiment with some audiophile AC cords and see what you hear. Everyone gets to decide for themselves what works and what doesn’t, and how much they want to spend. Powerline conditioners fall into this category, but my suggestion is to do the basics first. If you can add a dedicated AC line to your audio system and find a power cord you really like, you may find a power conditioner unnecessary. On the other hand, if your situation does not allow you to add a dedicated line or improve the outlets, an AC conditioner may be helpful. In any event, your ears should tell you what works and what doesn’t.
PD: What might we expect to see from SMc Audio in the next couple of years?
SM: I have been thinking about new amplifiers for a long time and I look forward to getting them into production soon. My plan is to use a single chassis that can be built as either a stereo amp in the 100W range, or as a monoblock pair in the 400W range. The first versions will be designed as companion pieces for the VRE-1 preamp, and I hope that this will lead to a wider range of similar products in the near future. A companion phono stage is also on the drawing board.
PD: Over the years you’ve had lots of good press but do you feel the reviewing process in 2011 makes sense? As a manufacturer, what would you like to change about the audio press?
SM: I’ve been in this business a long time and have worked with a lot of reviewers and magazines, so my feelings are complicated. I worked in high-end retail sales in the ‘70s so I got to watch the evolution of magazines like The Absolute Sound and Stereophile (and many others). When I started in retail, we (the dealers) were the main source of information about the products, and I saw this focus shift from the dealers over to the magazines during the ‘70s. The written word is a powerful thing, and consumers seem to have more confidence in printed reviews than a dealer’s experience. Anyone working in audio retail has had to deal with trying to sell a great product to an interested customer only to hear “Has it been reviewed?” If the answer is “no,” then it’s no sale. If “yes,” then “By who?” and “What did they think?” If the conclusion was anything other than lavish praise, the sale was still in doubt. So, what effect do you suppose that has on the retailer? Or the designer / manufacturer? Or the relationship between designers and reviewers? Good reviews = sales; no reviews or bad reviews = bad sales. You do the math.
The high-end audio business has evolved with a symbiotic relationship among the equipment designers, retailers, and press. If you wanted to succeed in audio, you either figured out how to fit into that symbiotic circle, or you remained a bit player on the sidelines. It is fascinating to imagine how this business might be different today if we had somehow managed to avoid this trap, but I don’t believe that was ever a real possibility.
Things are different today because of the Internet and the growth of webzines and blogs as a source of information. This has leveled the playing field considerably by giving anyone who cares to comment a platform to make their voice heard. Which is both good and bad, of course. Now it is easy to find a wealth of specific and detailed information on (for instance) a particular tube or transistor and how to best use them, which is great. On the other hand, ask a question about sonic differences between brand X and brand Y and you are likely to be quickly overwhelmed with mixed and often contradictory opinions. I feel sorry for any newcomer who chances upon one of these blogs and innocently asks for opinions about what equipment to get! No wonder that the hobby doesn’t seem to be growing.
Anyway, the bottom line for me is that the only opinion that really matters is your own, but it has to be informed by experience. It would be nice to think that we could really understand what some piece of gear will sound like by reading a review, but there is no substitute for hearing something in your own rig. OK, end of rant – sorry. Audio journalism is obviously crucial for staying informed about the hobby, the show scene, and new and interesting equipment and music. I love reading about shows I’ve missed and seeing what other designers are up to. At its best, good audio journalism conveys a sense of excitement and enthusiasm that makes people want to hear it for themselves. It whets our appetite for the audio-musical experience, and that’s what it’s all about.
PD: Any favorite designs other than your own? What is in your reference rig?
SM: I have a lot of respect for other designers, and I know all too well how much effort goes into producing good equipment. I’ve seen a lot of great gear, but I have been particularly attracted to the work of a few electronics designers – Yves-Bernard André and Tim de Paravincini come to mind. But I like my own gear best, of course! My system includes my VRE-1B preamp, UDP-1 disc player, SST-1 CD transport feeding a rebuilt DAC-1 or my trusty Stax DACx1t via a Magnan Signature digital cable, a prototype test-bed amplifier, and Vandersteen 3A Signature speakers. Cables are primarily Absolute Fidelity Interface cables from Gary Koh (Genesis Advanced Technology and Absolute Fidelity Interface Cables), and that now includes speaker cables, interconnects, and AC cords). I also use cables from Serguei Timachev (Stealth), Kubala-Sosna (Emotion), and Dave Magnan (now retired). My equipment rack is by Grand Prix Audio (the wonderful Monaco stand) and I use Stillpoints SS Ultra component feet. I am in-between vinyl rigs at the moment – I’m in the process of setting up a new sound room and will be setting up something new shortly.
PD: So what does Steve McCormack listen to when relaxing and enjoying music? And how different is this from when you listen to a new design?
SM: My taste covers a lot of ground, but I lean towards jazz, rock, and what is broadly called “popular” music (well, not mainstream pop). I depend on well-recorded material when I am doing evaluation listening, and the specifics change over time. But some of the music I love most is early jazz and swing-era big bands, and the quality isn’t always great – but the music is! Django Reinhardt and The Hot Club of France always moves me, and I love Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, just to name a few. I’m also a sucker for a great vocal, a hot guitar lick, and anything with a Hammond B3.
Let’s see… I just got in a few new (for me) CDs from John Prine (Fair & Square), Kelly Joe Phelps (Lead Me On), Nat King Cole (Live at the Sands), Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire (Thrills), and DEVO (Freedom of Choice). My current rotation stack includes Joni Mitchell (Mingus), Lyle Lovett (Joshua-Judges-Ruth), Patricia Barber (Modern Cool), Ben Webster (a recent remaster of Stormy Weather), Peggy Lee (Black Coffee), and Van Morrison (His Band and Street Choir, which is an old, dear friend). I could go on, but I think that gives you the idea.